WEST HARTFORD — Town center could get some needed improvements and outdoor dining might become a bit more permanent thanks to a recent round of federal grants.
Among town manager Matt Hart’s proposed spending of the over $37 million in funding the town is receiving from the American Rescue Plan Act is a plan to reconstruct the center of town.
“We are proposing a comprehensive project in town center that would allow us to upgrade all of the infrastructure,” Hart said. “Our sidewalks are old, we have some accessibility issues. We need to replace trees.”
Hart said they would also like to install retractable bollards on both ends of LaSalle Road and in parts of Blue Back Square that would allow them to easily close off the streets for events. They’d also like to construct a public restroom in town center.
Another portion of the project would allow for more permanent outdoor dining for restaurants.
“We’d like to expand the sidewalks and make them wider, so we can make outdoor dining more permanent,” Hart said. “We can widen the sidewalks and narrow the travel lanes through much of town center. We’ve seen over the last two summers how outdoor dining has added to our vitality.”
Hart is also proposing spending $5 million for flood mitigation infrastructure improvements, which would see the town construct storm drainage improvements that were recommended in the town’s recent study of an area of town between Farnham Road to the south, Elizabeth Park to the east, Asylum Avenue to the north and Trout Brook Drive to the West. The project would reduce or eliminate street flooding, Hart said.
The town has also already allocated $4.1 million to their general fund revenue for the current fiscal year.
Hart said this is a rare chance for the town to put money towards some long-needed projects.
“We want to utilize this funding to the extent we can to finance projects and initiatives that are going to have long lasting impact and staying power for our community,” Hart said. “We may never see an opportunity like this again. We do not want to squander this opportunity. We took that direction very seriously.”
The town is eligible to use the money in a few different ways, Hart said. Municipalities can use the funding to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency and its negative economic impacts, provide premium pay for essential workers, fund certain government programs and services or make necessary improvements to water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.
Another consideration for the funding is to create some kind of assistance for small businesses and nonprofits in town that have been impacted by the pandemic. This kind of relief could be similar to earlier federal COVID-19 relief grants.
Funding could also be distributed to organizations who plan to create improve or create new programs that react to the pandemic.
“They are responsive to the pandemic,” Hart said. “Think of the human services field...that a nonprofit has developed to support elements of our community that have been most significantly impacted by the pandemic, whether that’s mental health or food security.”
The town could also distribute grants, or matching grants, that would help finance a project eligible under grant criteria. Hart gave an example of a theater wanting to improve its HVAC system as one possible use.
To further that, Hart said the plan is for the town to engage with members of those eligible communities to hear from them what they think might be of help.
“Town staff would like to conduct an engagement effort...with virtual public forums with stakeholder groups,” Hart said. “We’d like to meet with the small business community...and the arts and culture community...the human services community a couple of times so we can talk about what we’re contemplating but more importantly get their feedback and input.”
As of right now, the town is only proposing use for a little under $19 million of the funding it will receive. The town has until Dec. 31, 2024 to obligate the money, but doesn’t have to spend it until Dec. 31, 2026.
They are also planning on using $6.6 million in bond funding for other projects, like the reconstruction of Eisenhower Pool, the construction of a new Hillcrest Neighborhood Outreach Center and the reconstruction of Park Road.